Beggars vs. Choosers

In just the last two weeks, we have seen how Boca Raton and Delray Beach can afford to be choosy about redevelopment projects and Boynton Beach cannot.

Boynton Beach’s population of about 70,000 is larger than Delray’s 65,000. But while Boynton has more people, the city’s tax roll is only about $6 billion—compared to nearly $10 billion in Delray Beach. Boca Raton has a stratospheric tax roll of almost $24 billion, the highest of any city in Palm Beach County.

That $4 billion gap explains why Delray Beach and especially Boca Raton should demand—even if that doesn’t always happen—while Boynton Beach must beg.

For years, even as growth came to Congress Avenue west of Interstate 95, Boynton has tried to redevelop the city’s historic downtown along Boynton Beach Boulevard and Seacrest Boulevard, while also pushing residential projects clustered around the city’s popular marina. Unlike Delray Beach, with Atlantic Avenue, and certainly unlike Boca Raton, with Mizner Park, Boynton Beach has had comparatively little success. The main cause has been the lack of civic-minded elected leadership, and the related crony politics.

Consider that members of the Boynton Beach City Commission sort of declared victory last week after choosing a developer for a portion of what once was known as the Heart of Boynton project and now is called Ocean Breeze East. The commissioners were acting in their role as board members of the community redevelopment agency. The CRA owns the land—site of the old Boynton Terrace Apartments—on which the city hopes that a developer called HH Holdings will build a successful apartment/retail/office project.

The CRA, though, paid $7 million for the entire 8-acre property. The land’s appraised value is roughly $600,000. But the prospective developer will pay nothing.

How could this happen?

Because the CRA bought the land in 2007 from a former CRA board member, Larry Finkelstein. At that time, the CRA board was independent, and included no members of the commission. Critics said the deal amounted to insider dealing and never would pay off for the public. Five years earlier, Finkelstein had brokered a deal for land within the CRA while serving on the board. He did not disclose his involvement, even as he touted the company he represented, and he denied any conflict of interest.

(This time, another CRA board member had to resign because he works for the winning company.)

Those who backed that 2007 sale defended their action by saying that a great new project soon would repay the city. Seven years later, Boynton Beach still is waiting.

And there’s more.

The Boynton commissioners seemed pleased that they actually had a competition for the Ocean Breeze East project, with two companies submitting proposals. But if Boynton Beach officials had been paying attention to what’s been happening in Delray Beach, they would have known that there really was no competition.

Florida Affordable Housing was that other company asking about Ocean Breeze East. Florida Affordable Housing is part of Auburn Group, which owns the Auburn Trace low-income housing project in Delray Beach. That would be the same Auburn Group that in March wanted Delray to modify terms of the city’s $4 million loan with the company. The city’s chief financial officer said the deal would be bad for the city.

Yet with two members absent, the city commission approved the deal. Two weeks later, though, the new commission—with everyone present—rescinded the deal. In a memo for that April 1 meeting, the city attorney wrote that Auburn Group seemed to have “misrepresented” itself at the earlier meeting.

That also would be the same Auburn Group that on Aug. 14 asked the Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency for $700,000 toward renovations at Auburn Trace, money that supposedly would match an equal amount from the county. Renovations had been one stated reason for seeking the loan modification.

Auburn Group said the CRA had to act by Sept. 3. Wisely unwilling to rush, the CRA board took no action, even though there is general agreement of the need to improve Auburn Trace. The question is who will do it and on whose terms. Delray Beach has made clear that it will not be on Auburn Group’s terms.

Just this month, though, Boca Raton took a hard line, at least indirectly with a much more prominent and coveted company—Trader Joe’s. The city council/CRA said the developer of East City Center, where Trader Joe’s will be a tenant, must bury power lines that now are on poles, even if the uncertainty rattles Trader Joe’s, which is set to open its Boca store four weeks from Friday.

Those who follow events in Boca Raton and Delray Beach know that even if those cities operate from relative positions of strength, they also sometimes let developers exceed the rules. Sometimes, it’s for a good reason, or at least a stated good reason. The record of the last three decades, however, shows that cities do best by investing in themselves, setting community standards and choosing the right leaders, who then reject crony politics. The goal is to have those coming before the city do the begging, not the other way around.

Election day thoughts

Today, a very small number of Republican voters will pick candidates to challenge a pair of area Democratic congressional incumbents. It won’t take long to see whether the GOP intends to make a fight for either seat.

Three Republicans want a shot at Lois Frankel, who represents District 22. It runs along the coast from Fort Lauderdale to Palm Beach. Six Republicans are running to go against Patrick Murphy, who represents District 18. Like Frankel, he is in his first term, representing northern Palm Beach County, Martin County and St. Lucie County.

The first obstacle for these congressional wannabes is getting voters to show up. Four years ago, turnout for the congressional primary in a non-presidential year averaged 15 percent in Palm Beach and Broward counties.

Then the survivors must convince the National Republican Congressional Committee that their races are winnable. That sell could be very hard.

Frankel’s district has a slight edge in Democratic registration, and none of the three Republicans has significant name recognition. Neither the Cook Political Report nor the Rothenberg Political Report lists District 22 as competitive, despite President Obama’s low approval ratings and trend lines that favor Republicans this fall.

As for Murphy, some of his opponents have political backgrounds, but as we discussed earlier they have very little money. They do have possible campaign issues, but all of them involve the voters’ dislike of Washington, and Murphy already is moving to counteract that. His latest TV ad shows him jogging in an obviously Florida setting bragging that he turned down free membership in the House gym: “I can jog right here.” The Cook Report lists District 18 as “Lean Democratic,” not even “Toss Up.” So does the Rothenberg Report.

In fact, the Republicans don’t need either seat. They hold a 234-201 advantage in the House, and they probably will be more intent on defending the Panhandle District 2 seat of Rep. Steve Southerland, whose Democratic challenger is a daughter of former Florida Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.

The race that most certainly will draw the national GOP’s attention is the one for governor. To judge how much a race means to a party, check to see where the party spends its money. Rick Scott will get a lot.

And looking toward November

Speaking of the November elections, it will be interesting to see if Democrats run away from every national issue—such as the economy.

Unemployment remains at what all sides, including the Federal Reserve, say is an unacceptable 6.2 percent. That figure, however, represents nearly a 40 percent decrease from the Great Recession-high of 10 percent, late during Obama’s first year. At this point in Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, the drop had not been nearly so significant from the Depression-era high of about 25 percent. Recall that in September 2008 the fear was that a second Depression loomed.

Elsewhere, the nation’s manufacturing output is at an all-time high, job openings are at their highest levels in 13 years and the monthly average for new jobless claims is at its lowest level since 2006. The spread between people quitting their jobs and layoffs is the widest since 2007. That’s good, because a higher spread means people are confident enough to leave for job for a better one.

No one would argue that the economy is in high gear. Remember, though, how close we came to seizing up not so long ago.

Will things go better with Koch?

For those in the fight to reform police and fire pensions with help from the Florida Legislature, the recent news of outside actors in that fight is not welcome.

The Florida League of Cities had worked very hard to present pension reform as a bipartisan issue—even though it was Republicans in 1999 who forced cities to spend so much more on benefits. A bill to undo some of that damage nearly got through the Legislature this year.

Now there’s a new group, called Taxpayers for Sustainable Pensions. It includes the League of Cities (OK), Florida TaxWatch (OK), the Florida Chamber (OK), but also Americans for Prosperity, the group financed by Charles and David Koch. Not OK.

Whatever one thinks of AFP, it is a decidedly Republican group. Perhaps the coalition believes that it doesn’t need Democratic help, but injecting AFP will bring a needless partisan element to an issue that should bring Democrats and Republicans together. For many Democrats, the feeling they get when the Kochs arrive is like the feeling many Republicans get when Al Sharpton hit town.

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

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About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.